Weaving Truth: Essays on Language and the Female in Greek Thought

  Bergren, Ann. 2008. Weaving Truth: Essays on Language and the Female in Greek Thought. Hellenic Studies Series 19. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_BergrenA.Weaving_Truth.2008.

2. Helen’s Web: Time and Tableau in the Iliad [1]

Meeting this convention, critics have chosen either to ignore it as insignificant, while emphasizing the positive and unproblematical achievements of the text, to condemn it as contrary to what the other, realistic conventions of the epic lead us to expect, to rationalize it, or to ascribe it to oral composition. The first is the position most frequently taken: the poetic glories of these passages are so great that their temporal details shrink to insignificance and concern with them to nit-picking philistinism. [8] There remain, however, some for whom these chronological facts are undeniable faults and to these, the defenders of the text have responded either by trying—along with the Aristotelian critics of the 4th century BCE—to resolve the inconsistencies rationally or by claiming that for an audience used to oral poetry the inconsistencies would be unnoticed or at least aesthetically irrelevant. None of these positions proves finally satisfactory. No matter how excellent these passages are in other respects, it is an interpretive repression simply to ignore the existence of their temporal features. Exonerating them as marks of oral composition fails to acknowledge our experience of the Iliad as a written text rather than as “winged words.” And indeed we may question whether listening to a text rather than reading it makes one less sensitive to its chronologies. The rational explanations offered are often ingenious—for example, that the very detail of Priam’s asking Helen to name the chiefs actually increases the verisimilitude of the passage, since an aged man would “naturally” have difficulty seeing from a distance and would need help in recognizing them. [9] Such λύσεις “solutions” cannot be disproved, but neither can they be devised for all of the temporal difficulties we confront. We are left with only the equally unwelcome alternatives of either ignoring or condemning this treatment of time. {44|45}

For a new interpretive approach, one that would reveal the poetic function of this convention, I have looked in two directions: first, to the formulaic method of composition, that is, to what we recognize as particular to the Homeric poems, and second, to structuralist theory of convention in general and verisimilitude in particular. Contemporary theory illuminates the particularities of the ancient genre, while the need to be consistent with ancient compositional technique prevents anachronistic application of the modern generalization. In this case, formulaic composition and structuralist theory converge in a re-interpretation of the suspension of temporal realism as the technique by which the Iliad creates the time of the tapestry, the time of Helen’s web. By transcending the limit of any single historical moment, the temporality of tapestry measures the dimension of Achilles’ κλέος ἄφθιτον “unperishing epic fame.” This understanding of Homeric “meta-temporality” makes it possible to re-appraise the artistry of the central Battle Books, to see how they prove both the temporal transcendence and—through the Διὸς ἀπάτη “deception of Zeus”—the generic vulnerability of the κλέα ἀνδρῶν “famous deeds of men.”

Structuralist theory of verisimilitude contributes first of all by revealing the breadth of this critical category. Particularly in the work of Gérard Genette it becomes clear that to question the verisimilitude of a text is to ask nothing less than what it means and what we, or any culture of readers, believe a literary text can or ought to mean. [12] The answer to the question of verisimilitude {45|46} comes, according to this view, from the text itself initially, from its several conventions that together make up a literary genre or “truth” or “world” that readers, then, must learn to recognize. Any literary practice becomes legible when we can recognize its verisimilitude, that is, what genre or world or truth it is about. On the basis of this understanding of the term, Genette and others are able to categorize periods and types of literature according to the level or levels of verisimilitude they include and to specify the conventions that create each level. In their determination of these so-called levels, these critics are aided by a fundamental tenet of the structuralist theory of language, namely, that linguistic signs make their meaning not by reference to external things but by their differential relations with other signs. Consciousness of this fact makes structuralists especially sensitive to the ways in which poetic texts “are about,” so to speak, their relations with other texts and thereby are also “about” the poetic process itself. As a result, their analyses are able to show how a given text bears a multi-leveled or complex verisimilitude, a manifold world or truth that could include, for example, the combination of qualities that Aristarchus saw in formulaic epithets, both the historical, the universal, and the poetic.

The τειχοσκοπία “viewing from the wall” opens with Iris summoning Helen to watch from the wall as Menelaus and Paris contest to possess her. This is the first time that the epic turns to look at the erotic origin and object of the war, and when it does, we see Helen who “was weaving (ὕφαινε, imperfect) a great web, double, purple, and embroidering (ἐνέπασσεν, imperfect of ἐμπάσσω, literally, “sprinkle in”) into it many contests of horse-taming Trojans and bronze-armored Achaeans, which they were enduring (ἔπασχον, imperfect) for her at the hands of Ares” (Iliad III 125–128). In this activity we see a reflection of the poetic process in the Iliad: in the words of the scholiast, “the poet has fashioned a worthy archetype or model of his own poetic art.” [14] The art of the Iliad is the art of the tableau. The two conventions of realistic narration and temporal suspension produce a verbal version of what we would see in Helen’s tapestry, that is, the action of struggle in stasis, both movement in {46|47} time—indeed imperfected movement—and metatemporal permanence, both at once. These paradoxical poetics are also those of the τειχοσκοπία “viewing from the wall” as a whole. Not in spite of but because it is a stock scene of the epic tradition, used here anachronistically, the τειχοσκοπία “viewing from the wall” becomes part of a design to show beginnings in ends and by that transcendence of linear time, to show simultaneously both something that happened once and what there is in that “something” that ever recurs. By mixing the suspension of historical temporality with otherwise realistic narration, that is, by retaining the marks of its “origin” as a traditional scene for the start of a siege, the encounter of Priam and Helen is portrayed as both a part of the present conflict and—what is also true of it—as a “formulaic” element, a “generic epithet” of all wars against walled cities. Like a tapestry, the τειχοσκοπία “viewing from the wall” is at once historical and universal and what is more, just as we see not only her web, but also Helen weaving it, so, too, the τειχοσκοπία “viewing from the wall” points by being so obviously traditional to the process of its creation, for it is by means of tradition that epic can make the historical universal. It is by traditional repetition of κλέος that epic makes of men’s deeds in the Trojan War, the immortal κλέα ἀνδρῶν “famous deeds of men.” This is the complex verisimilitude of the τειχοσκοπία “viewing from the wall” and also of those other portions of the Iliad in which the historical development of the plot is either suspended or contradicted.

In the course of Books XI and XII, the deviations from historical development serve to show warfare as a product of the plan of Zeus and epic as its immortalizing compensation—specifically, here, the βουλὴ Διός “plan of Zeus” to give Hector a day of glory that will cause his destruction. As an example, I take the opening of Book XII where the text constructs another τειχοσκοπία “viewing from the wall.” The Trojans have in Book XI progressed to the ditch and will at the end of XII break through the Greeks’ wall as well. At the start of Book XII, however, the poet turns from the action on the field to describe the destruction of that wall at the end of the war by Poseidon, Apollo, and Zeus. This prediction has no direct bearing upon the war itself; victory and defeat are unaffected by it. The result of this gratuitous forecast is only to dissolve the temporal significance of this moment to a point past the horizon even of the Iliad itself, to a point of god-like perspective upon the fighting to come. From this perspective, the permanence of the wall and of the warfare around it is reduced to only that which poetry can give. The gods can preserve or break a wall, but epic can, as it does here, repeat the facts past the point of their obliteration; so heroes can die, but their κλέος “fame” can be undying. It is from this metatemporal point of view, this second “viewing from the wall,” that we watch as Hector in rejection of Poulydamas’ right reading of the divine sign, insists ironically, “Let us put our trust in the plan of great Zeus (Διὸς βουλῇ) . . . one bird is best: to fight in defense of our fatherland” (Iliad XII 241, 243), and as Sarpedon claims that being “not without κλέος” in the eyes of his people is both motive and compensation for heroic death (Iliad XII 310–328). In the perspective of this second τειχοσκοπία “viewing from the wall,” human war is the product of a divine plot, discernible and redeemable only by epic in its power to transcend time. {48|49}

So far, then, in this vision of the heroic world, the power of poetry is subordinate to the plan of Zeus. Epic, it appears at this point, can reveal and compensate, but it is powerless to change. The βουλὴ Διός “plan of Zeus” remains the final arbiter of verisimilitude at every level of the text. Thus, for all its lack of chronological realism, this depiction of war appears firmly centered in a truthfulness that transcends simple historical factuality, the universal truthfulness of Zeus. What we are expecting, therefore, at the start of Book XIII is the completion of Zeus’ plan, the firing of the ships by Hector and the sundown on his day of glory. What we find, however, is something different, and for the fulfillment of Zeus’ promise, we would have to turn ahead to Book XV after line 404, when Patroclus resumes his return to Achilles and the Trojans retake the wall. Instead at the start of XIII, the suspension of historical temporality expands to include the suspension of what has until now been the “unmoved mover” of the Iliadic universe, the βουλὴ Διός “plan of Zeus.” During Books XIII and XIV, not only human temporality but divine vision and authority, too, will be subjected to poetic desire.

Book XIII opens with the ultimate violation of verisimilitude in the Iliad: Zeus averts his eyes. He no longer sees and can no longer control the progress of the text. This narrative move transgresses not only the poem’s historical time frame, but also the timeless realism of its supreme deity. In the absence of its author what happens to the plot of the Iliad is the incursion of an opposing plot, traditions kept absent by the central presence of Zeus and the exigencies of his plan for Hector’s glory.

As recorded by Eusebius and Pausanias the story is this. [23] Once Hera was angry with Zeus and refused intercourse. Zeus could not persuade her to relent, and so at his wits’ end, he consulted Alalkomenes (or Kithairôn, king of the Plataeans), who advised him that it was necessary to deceive (ἐξαπατητέον) Hera by pretending to marry another woman. So then in secret Zeus cut from the trunk of a tender oak tree a wooden image which he dressed in a bridal veil. He set the image upon a cart drawn by cattle and announced that he was going to marry this Daidalê (or Plataea, the daughter of Asopus). Amid the singing of the marriage song, the preparation of the bath by the nymphs of the river Triton, and the presentation of flutes and bands of revelers by the cities of Boeotia, Hera could resist no longer, but descended from Kithairôn, followed by the women of Plataea. Angry and jealous, she came running up to Zeus, pulled the clothing from the statue, and upon discovering the deception (ἀπάτη) of a wooden image instead of a bride, she was reconciled. With joy and laughter she rode in the procession as the bride herself, paid tribute to the wooden image by instituting a festival called the Daedala, but nevertheless burned the statue that, although inanimate, had aroused her jealousy. On this αἴτιον “aetiological myth” Frontisi-Ducroux comments: [24]

These narratives which relate the manufacture of a prototype of a statue are thus put under the category of a ruse. It is to deceive Hera—ἐξαπατητέον τὴν Ἥραν—that Zeus, aided by Cithaerôn or Alalcomenes, manufactures an image. There could be no better way of expressing the fact that art finds its origin in deceit . . . And, as is very often the case when it is a matter of mêtis, fraud—apatê or plasma—, far from being denigrated, bears a quite positive value. The anger of Hera ceases abruptly. There is reconciliation in the joy and in the midst of bursts of laughter that the vision of the artifice provokes (C’est la réconciliation dans la joie, et au milieu des éclats de rire que provoque la vue du simulacre).

With these qualities this myth is the double of the Διὸς ἀπάτη “deception of Zeus” except that the roles are reversed.

Hera’s technique in prosecuting her βουλή “plan” is the same as that by which the text introduces her plot. Again, the poet provides the term: it is χάρις “gratuitous beauty.” At the sight of Hera dressed with ambrosia and the artifice of δαίδαλα “variegated figures,” the poet exclaims, “abundant was the χάρις that gleamed forth” (Iliad XIV 183). And when Hypnos at first refuses to put Zeus to sleep, the inducement he cannot refuse is marriage to the Χάρις or “Grace” named Pasithea (Iliad XIV 267–276). In his eager acquiescence, Hypnos anticipates the reaction of Zeus, who will also bow to the force of χάρις “gratuitous beauty” embodied in his wife and her deception. For just as Hypnos hoped all his life for this “Χάρις,” so Zeus has never in all his life been so aroused by the sight of Hera (Iliad XIV 293–328). The βουλή “plan” of Hera is the Διὸς ἀπάτη “deception of Zeus” activated by χάρις “gratuitous beauty,” just as the episode itself is a deception woven into the center of the κλέα ἀνδρῶν “famous deeds of men” by an act of narrative gratuity.

By this central plot, the weaving of the κλέα ἀνδρῶν “famous deeds of men” emerges as a tapestry that is true to the art of Helen. For by this textual deception, Zeus is proved to be a god who can at the core of his epic be turned from plotting martial tragedy for humans to playing the comic victim of divine χάρις. Even Zeus is vulnerable to the fictionalizing of gratuitous beauty. The seriousness, the illusion of stable significance of the Trojan War is by the Διὸς ἀπάτη “deception of Zeus” deprived of support. The human tragedy of the κλέα ἀνδρῶν “famous deeds of men” is bisected only to reveal a center that has no real origin, no motivation in the text, but only the absence of origin or the fictional origin that is the χάρις of Hera. The truth of war, its verisi- {52|53} militude, includes this susceptibility to the plotting of eros, a plot that does not last long, but long enough. Now the βουλὴ Διός “plan of Zeus” must repeat itself and prove again its narrative authority.

In Book XV, Zeus employs the most effective means of establishing narrative and divine verisimilitude. As supreme divine power, he predicts he will do what the text then does. In turning to this strategy, Zeus wastes no time with motivation of the prophecy itself. Like the preview of the destruction of the wall, Zeus’ prediction of the future comes without evident cause, as he is directing Hera to send Apollo to rouse Hector:

Let him [Hector] stir up strengthless
panic in the Achaeans and turn them back once more,
and let them flee and fall into the many-benched ships
of Achilles, Peleus’ son. And he will rouse up Patroclus,
his companion. And glorious Hector will cut down Patroclus
with the spear before Ilion, after he has killed many other
vigorous men, and among them my own son, shining Sarpedon.
In anger for Patroclus shining Achilles will cut down Hector.
And from then on I would cause a counter-attack from the ships,
constant and continuous, until the Achaeans
capture lofty Ilion through the plans of Athena.
Before this neither do I cease my anger nor will I let
any other of the immortals defend the Danaans here
until the wish of the son of Peleus has been fulfilled,
just as I first promised and bowed my head to it
on that day when the goddess Thetis clasped my knees,
beseeching me to honor Achilles, sacker of cities.

Iliad XV 61–77

Although its motivation is hazy, the results of this prophecy are not. First, by recalling the events of Book I and their sequels, it re-collects all the strands of the βουλὴ Διός “plan of Zeus” left hanging, while the κλέα ἀνδρῶν “famous deeds of men” were woven in. Secondly, it summarizes the rest of the βουλὴ Διός, the plot that will take over now and develop relentlessly until the end of the poem. But this prefiguration does not end with the epic, however. Like the prediction about the wall, the end of Zeus’ promise is never fulfilled in the Iliad itself. What he promises in effect is a sequel to this poem, another story from the epic tradition in which the Greeks take Troy “through the designs of Athena” and the goals of the plots of both Poseidon and Hera will be met. As he solves the problem of opposition in the Theogony by incorporating his {53|54} adversaries in a hierarchy over which he holds sway, so here Zeus checks advances against the βουλὴ Διός by expanding it beyond the confines of the Iliad to include all the plots of the Trojan War. Zeus’ traditional strategy is to appropriate tradition. At once it begins to take effect, as Hera delivers her messages, Iris restrains Poseidon, Apollo revives Hector, and together the two, like Poseidon and the Greeks before, lead the resurgence that captures again first the ditch and then the wall (Iliad XV 78–389). At this point, the weaving of the κλέα ἀνδρῶν “famous deeds of men” is completed and the scene shifts back to Patroclus whose poetic and healing service to the wounded Eurypylus frames and glosses the Battle Books.

For while the poet has been singing the κλέα ἀνδρῶν “famous deeds of men,” Patroclus has been sitting and delighting (ἔτερπε) Eurypylus with stories (λόγοι) and sprinkling (ἔπασσε, the same verb as was used to describe Helen’s weaving of the contests) healing drugs upon his sore wound (Iliad XV 393–394). What are these stories that parallel drugs in healing a wounded warrior? In the proem to the Theogony, we are told that κλέα “famous deeds” assuage even the heart whose grief is fresh (Theogony 98–103). The stories that would heal Eurypylus are κλέα like those we have just heard in which the Greeks triumphed over the Trojans against the plan of Zeus. Yet to apply this version of the κλέα ἀνδρῶν “famous deeds of men” to the wounds of a Greek would also invoke its “a-centric” center, the Διὸς ἀπάτη “deception of Zeus,” the song that is subversive of all glory based in war, death, historical time and tragedy. The “temporal verisimilitude” of the world in which victory and defeat are meaningful is “violated” by sexuality, immortality, ritual repetition, and comedy. Even Zeus, that essence of linear time, is vulnerable to distraction by his own sexual urge. The pretense of the plot of Zeus to supreme narrative authority is vulnerable to disillusionment. Even the κλέα ἀνδρῶν “famous deeds of men,” even the κλέος “fame” in epic of Achilles, is a song, the plot finally not of Zeus or Poseidon or Hera, but of bards. Its factuality, its transcendent meaning is the work of bardic will. This is the “complex verisimilitude” of the Iliad at its core.

In the Iliad, then, deviations from the historical development of the plot are widespread and they range in form from an entire section like the central Battle Books, to a traditional scene like the τειχοσκοπία “viewing from the wall,” to extra-narrative predictions, to the indefinite suspension of a plot or an action such as the duel, and even to the gratuitous insertion with no narrative motivation of an actually subversive counter-plot. By bringing the timeless into otherwise realistic narration, this convention permits the text to portray not only the historical, but also the enduring nature of its subject. {54|55} By being realistic or historical in every dimension but that of time, the text makes of the Trojan War a classic, if by that we mean the real unbounded by time. This convention is, therefore, not a narrative mistake, as the analytical critics, who detect it best, believe; but it is, as they also claim, a mark of the traditional method and matter of Homeric verse. A scene like the τειχοσκοπία “viewing from the wall” points to the formulaic method of composition precisely because its anachronisms—those anachronisms that mark it as a sort of formula or “generic epithet”—have not been disguised. For it is precisely by anachrony, the contradiction of historical temporality through endless repetition, that epic becomes the immortalizing medium of κλέoς ἄφθιτον “unperishing fame.” Thus, a third level, that of the poetic process itself, is added by this convention to the historical and the universal meaning of the text. What results is a threefold or complex verisimilitude, one which mirrors in its depiction of time, timelessness, and artifice, the image offered by the text itself of Iliadic art, namely, Helen’s web. By these various violations of historical time the epic is given the properties of a woven tapestry—a string of words about heroism is woven into a tableau of permanent, if only poetic significance. {55|}


[ back ] 1. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Helios n.s. 7 (1980) 19–34.

[ back ] 2. APA Panel, “Some Contemporary Approaches to the Homeric Poems,” organized by Carl A. Rubino, 28 December 1978, Vancouver, British Columbia. I am grateful to the discussant for the panel, Wallace McLeod, for helpful criticisms and to David Blank, Deborah Boedeker, and Froma Zeitlin for valuable information and suggestions.

[ back ] 3. Aristotle “Aporhêmata Homêrika,” fragment 147 Rose.

[ back ] 4. See, for example, Faesi 1888 on Iliad III 122–244 and Reckford 1964:9–10.

[ back ] 5. Heraklides Ponticus “Luseôn Homêrikôn,” fragment 172 Wehrli.

[ back ] 6. See, for example, Ameis and Hentze 1877:163–170, Kakridis 1971:32 with bibliography, and Vivante 1970:147–148.

[ back ] 7. Kirk 1978:18–40.

[ back ] 8. See, for example, the defenses of Naegelsbach 1864:391, 396; Leaf 1892 on Iliad III 161; Bowra 1930:112–113; Owen 1966 [1946]:34–36. Owen’s claim that the scene serves to introduce the major Greek chiefs is countered by the fact that the two most emphasized in the Teichoscopia, Agamemnon and Odysseus, are already familiar from Iliad I and II.

[ back ] 9. For another example of this sort of explanation, termed by Aristotle a λύσις “solution” (Poetics 1460b6), see Heyne 1834 on Iliad III 166: “Nondum ante hunc diem tam prope ad urbem accessisse Achivos necesse est, et prospectum esse debuisse e muro liberum, ut Priamus singulorum ora discerneret.”

[ back ] 10. For a summary of the evidence for Aristarchus’ analysis of such epithets, see Parry 1971:120–123.

[ back ] 11. For the parallels to the τειχοσκοπία “viewing from the wall,” see Kakridis 1971:33–37, and on the traditional character of the scene, Bowra 1930:113: “It was his [the poet’s] business to produce the familiar traits as well as his new inventions, and at times he could only do so at some cost to his general design. In themselves the scenes have great beauty and sometimes they are relevant in their immediate context. Perhaps Homer did not mind this.” While agreeing with Bowra’s observation of the facts, I will try to counter his interpretation by demonstrating a “general design” that is not vitiated by violations of historical chronology within traditional material. By this demonstration, I mean also to suggest that the violations themselves are part of the epic tradition.

[ back ] 12. For the details of what I summarize here, see Genette, “Vraisemblance et motivation” (1969:71–99) and Culler, “Convention and Naturalization” (1975:131–160). Among Homeric scholars it is John Peradotto who has realized the importance of this issue and pursued it most profoundly in Peradotto 1974:803–832.

[ back ] 13. On the way in which the elaborate descriptions of objects and places, so characteristic of Homeric style, result in a realistic, “historical” narrative, that is, in the illusion of tangible surfaces in an actual time and place, see, for example, Auerbach 1973 [1953]:3, 6–7, 11, 14, and Barthes 1968:84–89.

[ back ] 14. Erbse, ed. 1969 on Iliad III 126–127: ἀξιόχρεων ἀρχέτυπον ἀνέπλασεν ὁ ποιητὴς τῆς ἰδίας ποιήσεως. On Helen’s role as poet in the τειχοσκοπία “viewing from the wall” and on weaving as a traditional symbol of poetic composition, see Clader 1976:6–11.

[ back ] 15. This view pervades 19th century English and German commentaries; for contemporary French and English versions see Mazon 1948:183–201; Bowra 1930:4; Owen 1966 [1946]:110–145.

[ back ] 16. See, for example, Owen 1966 [1946]:137–138 and Whitman 1958:283.

[ back ] 17. Owen 1966 [1946]:126–130.

[ back ] 18. This attribute of war is expressed at the level of diction by the line-final noun-epithet formula, ὁμοιίου πολέμοιο “of equal war.” Because it is reciprocal, war is equalizing.

[ back ] 19. See Fenik 1968:152–158.

[ back ] 20. See, for example, Leaf 1892:242–244 and Fenik 1968:157.

[ back ] 21. See, for example, Leaf 1892:246 and Mazon 1948:197.

[ back ] 22. See Klinz 1933 and Frontisi-Ducroux 1975:193–216.

[ back ] 23. Eusebius Praeparatio evangelica 3.1.3 and 6; Pausanias 9.2.7–3.8.

[ back ] 24. Frontisi-Ducroux 1975:213.

[ back ] 25. See “Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite: Tradition and Rhetoric, Praise and Blame” in this collection.